Work the Edges of the Organization
Transformational leaders are continually thinking about what their organizations should become, anticipating how employees and customers will react and change. Proximity is critical, especially as the pandemic has shown us how quickly sentiment and behaviors can change, often permanently. Xavier Rolet, who led the transformation of London Stock Exchange (increasing its market capitalization from $1.1 billion to $19 billion in eight years), said: “To me what drives innovation is proximity…a really close relationship with your customers, understanding their deepest challenges, and they are not going to tell you what their deepest challenges are unless they really trust you and know you.”
Transformations are often, but not always, initiated and led by the “center”: the board and the CEO and their direct reports and supporting functions. At first, they reach out to customers, partners, and employees on the front line to understand their needs, frustrations, and problems in order to work out what needs to be addressed. Once they complete their diagnosis, they retreat to the center, staying there until they want input again. It may sound like a caricature, but it’s an all-too-familiar picture in many traditional organizations. It’s no wonder that their leaders don’t have their finger on the pulse and those at the “edges” don’t feel listened to.
If you’re in the center, stay present at those edges of the organization and beyond, and especially with existing and prospective customers. Get “out of the building,” as Steve Blank would put it, and make that your default.
To pick up weak signals of change:
Share Leadership More Systematically
Successful transformation requires harnessing the leadership team’s and organization’s collective intelligence, energy, and experience. The degree of change and demands of the effort are too big to leave to an individual or small team to lead, especially considering it typically takes between seven to 10 years to take effect.
Selecting who should lead at what stage is critical and will depend on:
While the CEO and chair are ultimately responsible (along with the board) for transformation, the CFO might lead the way when there’s a refinancing, or the HR director might take the lead when there are employee issues to deal with. Dame Moya Greene, the CEO who led the transformation of Royal Mail Group, said, “Sometimes the (trade) union will want you in the room, but lots of times, you are not the right person.”
Sometimes it’s even more effective when these efforts are led by groups of formal and informal leaders (the ones people look up to even if they’re not at the top of the org chart). For example, at one technology company, a sales director led a workstream on how to create a more inclusive, empowering culture with the HR director, supported by well-respected managers. This combination sent the employees involved a stronger signal of sponsorship and intent than if a single individual led the effort.
Use the Transformation Starters Map, developed by Chris, to visualize and identify the key transformation leaders — and blockers. The map has successfully helped transformation leaders unblock or even accelerate the progress of large-scale transformation programs, and today, it’s being used by leading academics in business schools like MIT and Duke to train a new generation of transformational leaders.
Make Empowerment Live Up to Its Promise
Transformational leaders, especially of organizations steeped in bureaucracy, often promise their people “empowerment.” They want to encourage them to think, learn, and act differently, finding new ways to create value for customers by activating their entrepreneurial spirit. But many struggle to actually release control. Rather than crafting their own roles, employees are forced to undertake repeatable activities in fixed roles (even as progressive organizations like Alibaba have demonstrated that many of these more rote activities can be automated). This control reduces employees’ ability to tackle complex problems and limits the organization’s potential to make significant strategic and operational shifts in performance.
Some organizations, like Haier the Chinese appliance maker, have managed to make empowerment work based on high levels of transparency, clarity, and accountability.
To bring that into your own company:
In a changed, post-pandemic environment, employees, customers, and investors have high expectations for the companies they work with. Leaders who want their organizations to meet this moment and succeed long-term need to move away from the status quo and change their approach to how they’ll lead the necessary transformations.
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